The almost universal question shared by parents, youth organizations, and community leaders is how to get the attention of youth and engage them on issues of public concern at an early age. The need to focus our intentions is elevated through the recent examples of youth protests for action on climate change, gun control, and safe playgrounds. However, the question remains on how to engage youth in a way that elevates their voices and acknowledges their leadership abilities. Based on my experience as a co-founder of the Ferguson Youth Initiative and the County Engagement Specialist with MU Extension, it takes giving youth the opportunity and earning their trust that we will listen to what they say.
Late last summer, with just four months to plan, the Emerson Family YMCA, Urban Strategies, Ferguson Youth Initiative, and MU Extension in St Louis County, together with 15 collaborating organizations, hosted an inaugural Youth Empowerment Summit (YES). We had an ambitious goal of getting 50 teens to say yes to YES.
We asked ourselves, “How can we get teens to give up one of their last Saturdays before a new school year to participate in a classroom-based workshop?” The team determined the event had to be grounded in what youth would want and need. We involved teens in planning everything from food to format and schedule to swag. The team conducted a survey to hear which leadership skills the youth were most interested in learning about and which policy topics excited them. From the results, we developed the agenda and explored pathways to attract youth to attend and enjoy their experience.
We were determined to collaborate with other organizations to avoid duplication. We talked with schools, funders, and organizations to learn more about what can be done to augment their efforts. I personally called upon Washington University’s Gephardt Institute to help integrate YES with community efforts.
When it came time to open the summit, held on Saturday, August 24, 2019, I found myself standing in front of 108 teens from across St. Louis asking if they were ready to say YES to learning about their leadership skills and YES to wanting to see how they can better their community through policy. With a little encouragement, they yelled, “YES.” With that, we went on with the summit. After four breakout leadership workshops and three breakouts on policy issues, the teens provided 15 policy suggestions to a panel of local leaders.
The summit resulted in the development of the Youth Empowerment Program (YEP), a nine-month youth fellowship. YEP is designed to help prepare youth to be community leaders; to identify critical needs and issues important to youth; to learn how to develop and implement plans to address those needs and issues through policy; and to acquire the skills and support to improve their well-being and resiliency.
YEP is a collaboration of Ready by 21 St. Louis, St. Louis Youth Violence Prevention Partnership, MU Extension, St. Louis City Health Department, and Northside Community Housing. Funding for this project is provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (Grant Number 2017-MU-MU-K006).
Dwayne T. James, PE, is the County Program Director for University of Missouri (MU) Extension – St. Louis County. In this role, he collaborates with the Extension Council, Extension faculty and staff, and the regional director to provide direction for research-based programs for youth and families, businesses and communities, and horticulture throughout St. Louis County.
As a Ferguson resident, Dwayne served as a Council Member for the City of Ferguson, is the Race Director for the award-winning Ferguson Twilight Run, and is a founding member of the Ferguson Youth Initiative. He graduated from Normandy Senior High in 1990 and went on to receive his Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Kansas and his Master of Science in Civil Engineering from The University of Missouri- Rolla. Prior to MU Extension, he worked for Jacobs Engineering Group as a Structural Engineer, Project Manager, and Senior Inside Sales Coordinator.